‘It’s a godsend’: Arrival of Ukrainian pupils secures Mayo school’s future

School and locality have been transformed by tragic events in Ukraine, says principal

A Co Mayo primary school hit by drastically declining enrolment figures has seen its numbers boosted significantly by the arrival of Ukrainian refugees.

There are now 21 pupils attending Kinaffe National School, near Swinford, compared with just six less than two months ago.

Reflecting on the increase, school principal Margaret Reilly said on Monday: “The influx of new pupils was not something we could have foreseen. It has proven a godsend, not just for our school but for the entire community.”

“Our school, indeed the locality, has been transformed by tragic events thousands of miles away. Connections of humanity and the heart have transcended all political and geographical barriers.”


As a result of the sharp increase in enrolment, the short-term future of the school has been assured.

The new arrivals were understandably a little nervous and withdrawn when they first arrived in early April.

Pupils, who come from areas badly affected by the war, would dive beneath their desks when jets took off from nearby Ireland West Airport Knock. The school is on the outbound flight path from the airport.

“Now the children are much relaxed and settled,” Ms Reilly said. “No longer do they associate aeroplane engine noise with danger and destruction.”

Some of the young émigrés, with the assistance of their teachers and Google Translate, offered opinions on their new environment.

“I like the rain,” said Taras (13) as he pointed to a darkening sky, while Liza (11) said she liked being out and about in nature.

More than 300 Ukrainian refugees, mostly women and children, are being accommodated at Breaffy Woods Hotel near Castlebar. Apart from Kinaffe, 32km away, pupils are also bussed daily to primary schools in Breaffy, Belcarra and Balla. Kinaffe has taken the highest number of youngsters.

The school, formerly staffed just by Ms Reilly and Eleanor Hyland, now has four tutors following recruitment by the Department of Education of Caroline Leonard and Maria McNulty to help cope with the extra workload.

Ms Leonard said the new pupils were doing well. “We can feel them settling in,” she said. “We can feel the calm. Working with these children who are always smiling is so rewarding.”

Ms Reilly said the entire community was assisting the school in welcoming, educating and nurturing the new arrivals who range in age from four to 13.

Businesses and individuals have made donations including toys and musical instruments, while the three most requested items are wellington boots, raincoats and schoolbags.

Mary Davis, chief executive of Special Olympics International, who contested the presidential election in 2011, attended the school in the 1960s. There were 150 pupils then, she recalled in an interview with The Irish Times when she revisited her old primary school while campaigning.

Enrolment numbers in 2011 when Mrs Davis called had fallen to 16. For decades, school numbers have been seesawing.

Crisis point was reached in the mid-1990s when the very existence of the school, which had only three pupils on the roll, was threatened.

Ms Reilly recalled how the local community rose to the challenge. Among the fundraising events organised was a marathon in Dublin, which raised enough money for the board of management to pay a teacher’s salary for a year.

In 2008, Kinaffe School, built nearly a century earlier, was upgraded at a cost of more than €750,000. The old roof was replaced, the building drained and a new AstroTurf, basketball and tennis court provided. There are three spacious, fully equipped, classrooms.

“It would have been such a pity were such a fine educational facility to have been idle or underused,” the principal said.